Memorial Day Remembrance, 2014

I wrote this speech to deliver to the Village of Kohler, Wisconsin, as part of their 2014 Memorial Day parade and ceremony.

Memorial Day is dear to Americans because it isn’t about us. Simply put, if we are here to celebrate it, then it isn’t about us — because we are alive to remember. It honors the achievement and sacrifice of our countrymen and women whose service required their very life.

As a Marine, the stories of my forbearers who gave their lives in service are legendary to me. Nearly any Marine can tell you the story of Lieutenant Bobo. Quoting from his Medal of Honor citation: “When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Second Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines.” That occurred in Viet Nam in 1967.

A more recent example is Corporal Dunham. His Medal of Honor citation relates, “…[A]n insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast.” This occurred in Iraq in 2004.

These young Marines, and their sacrifice, live on in the institutional memory of the service. I first encountered Lieutanant Bobo’s name in 2003, when I underwent Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. It was the name of our Chow Hall, a place of great importance to us candidates, and our Drill Instructors never wasted an opportunity to tell us the story of the hall’s namesake (usually as part of a larger diatribe regarding our worthlessness and general incapacity to become Marines. Ah, the sweet nurturing environment of Basic Training!). Enlisted Marines also learn about Lieutenant Bobo in their Boot Camp. I know that in time, buildings and roads on bases throughout the Marine Corps will bear the name of Corporal Dunham, and newer generations of Marines will learn about — and be inspired by — his heroic deeds as well.

These two stories from different wars show us that the decision to give what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg (arguably the first Memorial Day celebrated by this nation) is not made in the moment of stress. Lieutenant Bobo would not have had the fortitude to resist evacuation and direct the fight after losing his leg unless he had already decided, in some deep unconscious center of his soul, that he would give his all for his country. Corporal Dunham could not have jumped on that grenade “without hesitation” and within the five-second fuse of such weapons, had he not already chosen — in the months and years of training and operations prior to that moment –that the success and integrity of his mission and his team were more important than his own life.

This day is set aside to celebrate our nation’s fallen, but not only their final heroic deed of service. It celebrates also their lives, for each of them had the character and courage to dedicate themselves wholly to the rest of us long before we collectively asked them to sacrifice themselves. They represent the best of these United States, the ones who have made our existence and prosperity possible: the Minutemen who faced British cannon and muskets in 1775; the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiments who as part of the famed Iron Brigade defended the high ground west of Gettysburg on the first day of that battle, enabling the rest of the Union Army to emplace and finally score a victory which led to the preservation our nation whole; the Soldiers and Marines who faced the unprecedented peril of amphibious landings at Normandy and throughout the Pacific; the heroes of Viet Nam and recent conflicts in the Middle East.

Today I remember the Marines I knew personally who died in service. Some, like Lieutenant Blue, died in Battle. He was as an outstanding officer, who routinely aced physical and tactical tests at The Basic School where we were classmates. He was also known as a “good dude” (in our lingo), which meant he was the kind of guy who would give up weekends to help his fellow students master testable skills, like marksmanship and compass navigation. He already had what the rest of us recent college graduates were struggling to develop: outstanding character. In training, he had all the talent and drive to graduate as the number one student, but chose instead to use his gifts to help his fellow students (and even so he graduated in the top 10% of our class). Our success was more important to him than his own. If anyone understood the importance of character and service at the tender age of 25, when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq (2007), it was Lieutenant Blue. Word of his death spread quickly among his classmates, even to those like me who had limited interaction with him during our short time in school together. I believe he was the first of our class to die in the conflict, and he proved the old adage “the good die young.”

I also remember Marines who died in Training. A fellow fighter jock of mine, Reid Nannen, died this year [2014] when his F/A-18 Hornet crashed into the mountains of Nevada, where he was training at the Naval Fighter Weapons School (otherwise known as “Top Gun”). His callsign, or nickname, was “Eyore” because he was always comically pessimistic, but it under-laid his solemn unwavering dedication to the craft of aerial combat and aviation ground support, which had earned him the rare and coveted spot at Top Gun in the first place. He was also known for his dedication to his family, and was survived by his pregnant wife and three children. Although he was only training, it’s easy to forget that  our service members assume serious risk beyond what most non-military folks ever encounter in just training for combat. And it’s important to note that his family served our country in a way as well, suffering his absence when the country needed him to get ready for war as well as execute it, as he did in Afghanistan, and suffering his loss in the deepest way. Memorial Day is for them, too.

We celebrate the men and women who have died for us because we recognize that the highest and best use of freedom is in the service of others. Some wars we fought to carve out and preserve a spot of freedom on the earth to call home, these United States, and some wars we fought to bring freedom to others. But the men and women who died in our wars swore their lives to protect that freedom, firstly for us, but also for others less fortunate. I ask you all, as I would ask any of our countrymen, to enjoy this day as Americans — enjoy our freedom, our happiness, and our prosperity at the dawn of summer. Enjoy barbecues, enjoy some pick-up basketball games, and enjoy this time with your families. Enjoying our blessings is how I believe fallen service members want us to remember them.

But while enjoying this Memorial Day holiday, I will also honor the fallen with a quiet personal toast of my beer. I invite all of you to do the same.

Faith, Reason, and Debating the Existential “Big Questions”

I’m past college, and with those years has passed the incidence of earnest debate about things like religion and the meaning of life. That I attended a Catholic university and majored in a “Great Books” meant that I fielded my share of challenges from those who believed something different than I did, and one of the most pressing questions that came up at that time was why.

Why do you believe?

There is something fantastic and mythological, certainly, about the story of a God coming to earth in order to offer Himself up as a perfect, spotless sacrifice in order to atone for every human sin, past and future, and reconcile the human race to Himself as God. The particulars of the story are indeed quaint and uncomfortably sentimental: a sweet young woman chosen to miraculously conceive God’s child; archetypal authority figures hatching dastardly plots and darkly scheming to stop this bright young hero; a set of bumbling accomplices; an impossibly evil death; and the most mythical and unbelievable thing of all: that he was killed and then came back to life.

To my friends, well-educated and mostly liberal humanists, the tale of Christ bears too many similarities to the quaint myths of many other cultures, and is only the biggest myth in a child-like narrative of the world with a stylized creation story and a lot of horrible barbarities. Compared to sophisticated promise of modern disciplines like sociology, psychology, and specialized sciences, a primitive culture’s myth seems plainly archaic. How could anyone believe this, much less someone college-educated?

The challenge about answering this question is that it is ideological rather than academic. Those who ask it have a certain perspective which I don’t understand, but which seems to preclude the idea of a supernatural. Some profess to be humanists, who believe that continued enlightenment in sciences will eventually conquer our social and personal afflictions. Others profess to be rationalists, believing only in those things that science has proved or theorized.

Such alternative belief systems are not, in and of themselves, ideological. They fall more truly into the existential category, defining who we are and why we exist. But they seem to come with a lot of ideological baggage these days. After all, elements of our society today are unabashed and even aggressive apologists for faith (professing the Christian doctrine of sola scriptura) and many of them speak in terms of condemnation, specifically condemnation of those who disagree with them, to hell. They often stand for uncomfortably traditional values as well, like maintaining traditional gender and socio-economic roles. Now all of a sudden we aren’t talking about a different moral and existential perspective, we’re talking about an ideological opponent. And, to be fair, there are fundamentalist Christians who are offensive and judgmental in proselytizing their beliefs.

But to turn the tables, many so-called rationalists and/or humanists can be just as aggressive, and I am skeptical that their explanations of the world are actually more ‘rational’ than a faith-based one. It’s easy to talk about gravity or astronomical relations and say that we can “prove” real science empirically, but I doubt that many of us have empirically viewed the behavior of a virus, or the release of certain brain hormones causing affection or depression. We accept that viruses and brain hormones work a certain way because we have studied the effect of those things and measured them in actual humans, so we know they exist and they affect, somehow, our health or mental state. We also believe people called “scientists” when those people tell us about viruses and brain hormones (and the behavior of chemical elements, and many other things), because we have faith that their education and certification makes them intrinsically trustworthy on certain issues.

Whether or not you trust a scientist or a theologian (or a priest) is really the question, unless on. An Op-Ed in the Washington Post recently pointed out very thoroughly that the two sides are not mutually exclusive. I have little to add to the writer’s argument because I agree with him — I believe in the story of the Christ and yet also pursue understanding of scientific matters, because I want to know more about us and this world we inhabit. He ends with a marvelous paragraph worth quoting in full:

The problem comes when materialism, claiming the authority of science, denies the possibility of all other types of knowledge — reducing human beings to a bag of chemicals and all their hopes and loves to the firing of neurons. Or when religion exceeds its bounds and declares the Earth to be 6,000 years old. In both cases, the besetting sin is the same: the arrogant exclusive claim to know reality.

The answer to the question of why I believe the entirety of the Christian story, with it’s quaint mythological narratives about paradisiacal gardens and apples of knowledge of good and evil and floods and prophets and whales and the Son of God is that I find it more plausible than any of the alternatives. It really makes more sense to me. Not necessarily in they physical particulars (“do you really believe that some prophet actually parted water to create a passage?”), but in the tale it tells of how humanity became prone to doing bad things and how God then came Himself to redeem humanity from its sinful nature.

The Christian tale is plausible to me mostly because of my own experiences in sin and redemption. The vast majority of these experiences are with my own sins and redemptions in my life so far, and a few of them are observations of other peoples’ sins and redemptions. On a precious few occasions I recall witnessing a miracle, or experiencing a beatific presence I attribute to the Christian God. These things are open to interpretation in an academic sense, of course. Rationalists might argue that my experiences of good and bad in myself and others are filtered through a strong inculcated Catholic belief system. They might doubt that I, in fact, saw or experienced so-called “supernatural” things, and point to the demonstrated phenomenon of humans to manufacture memories that suit their subconscious perspectives. And as far as that goes, they may be right. I can’t transmit my experiences to others, so therefore I can’t expect anyone else to believe my conclusions. And yet I can no more forget them than an astronaut could forget his view of a round earth from space, or an astronomer could forget the sightings and calculations that the earth and nearer bodies revolved around the sun in elliptical trajectories.

My point here is not to convince anyone in my beliefs. I don’t think that’s possible — neither a rationalist nor a faith-based belief system can be truly transmitted via dialectic. Any belief system has to be experienced to be believed, personally and deeply experienced. And for a human, that means engaging both the intellect and whatever part of the brain controls belief.

Someone who believes that human emotions like love and depression are a combination of neuron activity and chemical activity in the brain has probably actively engaged the subject: he or she likely wondered why people experience love and other emotions, and pursued the answer until they found an explanation. That’s the activity of his or her intellect. He or she also had to exclude other explanations for emotions (presuming they found others), such as activity of a metaphysical soul, or instinctual behavior bred in by evolution, which is primarily a decision of faith. Does he or she trust neurologists who measure neuron activity and brain chemicals? Priests, philosophers, and/or wise men and women, who have reached a supernatural explanation due to their long experience in considering and/or observing human behavior? What about sociologists and/or biologists who study behavioral patterns and instinct activity?

Personally, I don’t believe that a scientist is intrinsically a better person than a priest or a philosopher. All three are human, which means they are subject to the same ideological myopia and vices, as well as the same inspiration and virtue, as the rest of us. No single person knows everything, and experience teaches that even if a person did, he or she would forget part of it, or hide part of it, or even use it to his/her advantage. Positing that it’s possible to know everything, and use that knowledge correctly, is coming dangerously close to positing God. Whether we follow to that conclusion, or stop short — and who/what we decide to trust and therefore believe — well, that’s just our obligation as rational beings. We each must individually decide what to believe.

It’s natural that each of us would seek like-minded friends in the world, and so it’s easy to see how we would gravitate towards those who believe the same things. So begins ideology, or the pursuit of actualizing an ideal, which carried to the extreme ends up forgetting that ideas are not more important than people — or so I argue as a Christian: that individuals have the highest intrinsic value; ideas may be valuable but they’re not worth more than life itself.

I plead that we don’t let this social instinct push us into prejudice. I and many people I know believe in the teachings of Christianity and yet also follow the progress of scientific knowledge. Many of these people are scientists or doctors themselves. And likewise, I know that people who religious faith (Christian or other) is irrational do not reduce the human experience to the peculiar behavior of a peculiar animal, enslaved to instinct and evolutionary imperative.

So let’s not discuss these existential issues of faith, science, reason, and belief with a desire to win, especially to win by painting other belief systems in pejorative colors. Rather let’s do it to better understand ourselves and each other.

Restoring the Meritocracy, or addressing concerns about the US Officer Corps

Recently Mr. William Lind published his latest article, and as usual it was provocative. Titled “An Officer Corps that can’t score,” it argues that the United States military has lost the competitive edge in combat for the following reasons:

  • An ego problem, the apparent perception of US Officers that they oversee the best military that’s ever existed;
  • A personnel problem, that officers are punished for creative thinking and innovation (and the mistakes that invariably accompany such a mindset);
  • A staffing problem, which shortens command tours of duty so everybody on the bench gets a chance to play, if only for a short period of time; and worst of all,
  • A moral problem, in which officers support and perpetuate the status quo to protect their careers–notably a problem the US Military did not have after the Vietnam conflict (according to Mr. Lind).

Certainly these are serious accusations. Mr. Lind’s article sparked a great deal of response, too. Several active duty officers penned articles which asserted indignantly that there *is* a great deal of debate in the military regarding staffing, weapons acquisition, force structure, and other ‘big picture’ issues. What is conspicuously absent from the responses, however, is a critique of the personnel situation–which, as the lynchpin of Mr. Lind’s argument, probably deserves the most thoughtful consideration.

Mr. Lind’s own history plays a big part in his critique as well. I’ve never met the man, but if you’ll indulge in a little amateur psychology, I would say that Mr. Lind very much has a dog in this fight. He was foremost among what he calls the most recent wave of “reformist innovators,” and highly praises his contemporaries Col Boyd (USAF) and Col Wyly (USMC), with whom he generated much of the intellectual foundation of so-called Maneuver Warfare. He also helped introduce and develop the theory of Fourth-Generation Warfare, an extension of Col Boyd’s definitive and much-lauded omnibus theory of combat “Patterns of Conflict.” Anyone who is a bit startled (and/or stung) by the opening line of his article, “The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps,” ought to at least realize that Mr. Lind is aggressively applying the theories of warfare that he developed and championed to his very broad-brush of a statement about our apparently constant defeats.

The predictable–and justified–knee-jerk reaction by junior officers in the US Military is that Mr. Lind is wrong, and that there is anything BUT silence about the struggles and outcomes of these so-called “Fourth Generation Wars.” Indeed, in my own experience there is a lot of debate about technology (drones, bombs, tanks, and their efficacy) and tactics regarding the most recent conflicts in the Middle East. That is all very good. But I think Mr. Lind hits the nail on the head when he criticizes the military–particularly the officer–personnel system. And while there is a lot of debate about that issue as well, it’s usually conducted in hushed voices and away from field grade and higher officers.

Complaints about personnel issues usually center around field grade officers focused on achieving the next rank (and running their subordinates into the ground to get it), or general officers trying to maintain their reputation to their civilian masters with an increasing administrative burden of annual training and paperwork accountability. To the uninformed, it just sounds like bitching, but hearing enough of it reveals that both types of anecdotes coalesce around one central issue: today’s officer cadre does not have either the time or resources to focus on warfighting.

How has this come to pass? At the danger of theorizing ahead of data, I have some suggestions:

  • First, during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts we created a whole sub-combatant-command for each location, complete with Joint Force Commanders, Functional Component Commanders, Service Component Commanders, and associated staffs. This effectively doubled the requirement for staff officers in each of the four major service components. In addition to being top-heavy, it prevented the whole coalition from having any true cohesion as a unit, because new units were revolving in and out under a joint commander who, in addition to directing the whole campaign, also had to administer the vastly increased relief-in-place and transportation requirements of such an ad hoc system. Imagine if Patton had new armored and mechanized units rotating in and out of the 3rd Army throughout 1944 and 1945. Would he have been able to build such a successful and dynamic fighting force?
  • Second, as a corrolary to the first, there are career requirements for officers appointed to joint commands. The demand for those officers has forced the services to cut career billeting corners to get enough qualified officers to meet the demand. That is a recipe for “check-the-box” leadership and careerism from start to finish.
  • Third, most services made a decision to shorten deployment times in order to ease the burden on servicemembers’ families. This was a social decision, and it may not have been a bad one. However it did create a ‘revolving door’ in nearly every unit in the military, as whole combat units turned over from year to year and had to be assigned places in the supporting establishment, which in turn was bloated beyond needs and suffered the same ‘revolving door’ effect. The Army alone experimented with year-long deployments in the hopes that more time in country would allow greater innovation and success in the counterinsurgency fight; I’d be curious to see if there were any positive results.
  • Finally, Congress has micromanaged the benefits of servicemembers to the point of restricting officers from shaping their force. I doubt anyone in the military, including me, would complain about pay increases, money earmarked for better base gyms and housing (including ‘in country’), and a reduction on sexual assault and/or suicide. The problem is the way Congress has enacted these changes. Forcing them down the military’s throat creates a culture of ‘yes-men’ who must “support and defend” the Constitution by bowing to each new decree of a prime Constitutional institution, Congress, no matter what that does to already scarce military resources. Sergeant Major Barrett’s comments, while tactless and insensitive, demonstrate the frustration of many military leaders that servicemembers need meaningful combat training, expensive as it is, more than they need administrative sexual assault training and fast-food joints on base.

The prevailing sentiment among junior officers is that the military is directionless, or maybe more specifically suffering the pull of too many ‘missions’ at once. There’s Congress, forcing social changes and shutting down government. There’s the so-called “War on Terror,” which carries real danger but no real reward–neither Congress nor the Services themselves seem to care much about it anymore. There’s the Administration, preaching a “pivot to the Pacific” and a drawdown, which ominously promises more tasks for the military to accomplish with fewer people, and there’s the innate sense of honor in the services themselves that expect the officer cadre to keep all these masters happy and still field fighting units.

In this context, I will speak heresy to the die-hards and state that there’s small wonder junior officers in particular keep their heads down and try not to screw up (i.e. bring all their servicemembers back alive with comparatively little regard for ‘the big picture’). It also explains why so many veterans of the recent conflicts look back nostalgically on the simpler world of their combat tours, when they had a single direct mission and a feeling of accomplishment.

So what sort of reform would make Mr. Lind happy? I’m not sure, as he simply bemoans US Officers’ lack of creativity and moral fibre, but I have some suggestions on that score as well. But first, I’ll point out that some of the best ideas have come from much more creditable sources than me. Go there, and explore.

My ideas are pretty simple. There is a romantic conception floating around that the military is a meritocracy–in other words, the officers who are best at their jobs should be the ones that get promoted. The shortened command tours, vast administrative requirements, and glut of officers in the services effectively obscure the good officers from the mediocre, lowering moral and motivation. I believe that the best leaders in today’s military truly seek a chance to lead and to show their mettle, so I propose the military make a few structural changes to recover a merit-based promotion system.

  • Lengthen command tours, including the tours that are required for command screening, to 3 (or 4) years. This would first of all require existing commanders to put a lot of thought into the junior officers they promote, knowing that the officers they evaluate highly will eventually control a combat unit for three years (instead of 18 months), and would allow existing junior officers a lot more time to develop and lead their troops under the guidance of one Commanding Officer. 
  • Longer tours help mitigate the ‘zero-defect mentality,’ a colloquialism which refers to the reality that one mistake in an officer’s career is enough to prevent him/her from making it to the next step, because he/she will always be compared to other officers with no such mistakes. It’s a lazy way to evaluate, because the positive effects of the officer with the mistake may be greater than those of his/her peers, and may indicate greater potential. But at least with a full 3 years of observed time, officers will be able to recover from mistakes–and their seniors will be forced to consider which of their subordinates are best suited for further opportunities, knowing that maybe only one will have the opportunity.
  • Longer command tours also permit greater unit stability, which will increase esprit de corps, has been shown to reduce things like suicide and sexual assault, and will certainly increase combat effectiveness.
  • Increasing tour length will be essentially meaningless if officer staffing remains high, because right now it seems like every officer gets the chance to move on regardless of his/her performance against peers. As part of the draw-down, the military as a whole should reduce officer staffing to the minimum level required for service administration, starting with Generals and working down the rank structure (and this reduction should occur before any enlisted personnel cuts, in accordance with good leadership practices). The military should also eliminate the additional joint force staffs located in Iraq and Afghanistan. This will be an unpopular step, as many generals will be forced into retirement, many more field grade officers will be forced into early retirement, and many junior grade officers will not have the opportunity to continue in the military past their first tour. It would help ensure, however, that only the best officers in each rank will remain–reinforcing the idea of the military as a meritocracy.

Actual, active duty officers have much more specific lists of things which need to change, most of which revolve around their ability to train their servicemembers. And we should listen to them. But we can’t force current officers to change their way of thinking–most of them have been shaped by the questionable leadership environment that Mr. Lind notes for the entirety of their career. We can, however, collectively change the game–we can stop playing that ‘everybody gets a chance’ and start giving our officers the space and responsibility to fully lead their men and women. That’s why most of them sought a commission in the first place.

These kinds of changes will force leaders at all level to focus on quality, not qualifications; it will force officers to make tough evaluation decisions after years of watching their subordinates develop. Ultimately, only the top 20-30% will have a career each tour, which will ensure that only the most effective officers run our military.

When our nation’s security and American lives are at stake, isn’t that what we want?

This article was published first by Military Spouse Magazine. Please check out their site!

Actual Text below:

The 11th of November is recognized around the world as “Armistice Day,” and was first celebrated in 1918 at the cessation of the First World War. Since that day, the combatant nations have developed their own traditions about the day, the most common being a 2-minute silence observed at 11:00 AM (the eleventh hour) with the first minute dedicated to the 20 million people who died in the fighting and the second minute dedicated to those they left behind, specifically their families and friends (who were recognized also as victims of the war).

In the United States, Armistice Day was renamed to Veteran’s Day. Its purpose was changed, too, because the United States already had a day of remembrance for those who died in combat. Instituted after our deadliest war, the Civil War, the final Monday in May is known as Memorial Day and is dedicated to all Americans who died in battle. Our Veteran’s Day, however, is meant to recognize not specifically those who died for our nation, but all those who stepped up to take that risk.

The importance of this holiday lies in the nature of our own democracy. Whereas colonial powers in the 18th century chiefly fought with professional armies and mercenaries, the nascent United States chose to ask its civilians to bear the hardships and risks of military service. The founding fathers reasoned that citizens, who were aware of their value to the state and invested in its continuance, would both best defend the country and prevent tyrants backed by professional armies from threatening their freedom. And so the idea of a citizen-soldier came into being.

We all contribute to our national defense mostly by paying taxes that finance our military. During the Second World War, we collected scrap metal, scrap rubber, and planted victory gardens. We may post social media statuses in support of our military, or advocate better care for those suffering the physical and emotional wounds of conflict, or put a supportive sticker on our car. And those are great and appreciated acts, especially considering the many voices that vilely condemn and degrade our service members.

But what separates the Veterans from the rest of Americans is their oath to support and defend the constitution—and, by extension, both the people it represents and the institutions it created—even unto their own death. The Veterans willingly chose to give up some of their inalienable rights for the sake of military discipline, to give up the comfort and safety of family, friends, and society, to practice and execute wildly dangerous tasks necessary for the defense of our nation. They risk their lives, not just in all the conflicts we’ve fought since the ceasefire in Compiègne, France in 1918, but in their daily existence: they train in all weather, risking heat stroke and hypothermia; they service and operate engines, pushing ground and air vehicles to the very edge of design capability; they practice using firearms and explosives. They also forego the luxury of leisurely self-discovery in their service of a higher cause, as well as suffer deployments which take them away from their loved ones during holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, births, deaths, and all the other little life events that are markers for memories in a relationship.

For most Veterans, their service was mostly enjoyable. It bestows confidence, meaningful achievement, strong friendships, and unforgettable experiences. But many Veterans also bear scars from their service. They remember comrades who died, or terrible hate in the faces of their enemies, or the price of a second’s neglect, perhaps on the trigger of a gun or in the cockpit of an airplane. That is often the price of military service, though it mostly gets little press or attention, and most Veterans bear such anguish stoically because they know they “signed up for it” and are unwilling to demean their sacrifice by making it the burden of another.

And finally, let us not forget that the privation and suffering of Veterans are shared by their families and friends, who are often left alone and bereft during deployments or training, and who do not have the military support structure of discipline and camaraderie. Service members’ families also receive far less emotional support from our society than military men and women. As they share the burden, so also should they share recognition on this day.

On November 11th, we remember that what Veterans—and those who love them—have done, what they have risked, is special to our country. It continually validates our democracy and our society, recognizing that our nation’s will is truly of the people and by the people. So for those people who take the risk imposed by their oath to defend this country, and who bear the burdens of military service, we (whether we are Veterans or not) offer our thanks and appreciation.

Thank you for your service.

On Proselytizing

A recurring discussion in our democratic world is the role of religion in society. The issue is divisive and applied to all manner of tangential issues–immigration and abortion are the first that come to mind.

Historically, Christianity was the dominant religion. By the numbers, it still is, though at one point there was a sizeable Jewish minority and there are growing Islamic and atheist communities. The percentages have changed with immigration and secularization, which is the process by which a growing number of Americans who were raised in a religious tradition leave it behind as adults.

Theoretically, none of this matters. The First Amendment ought to make the United States a nation in which all religions can be practiced freely, as well as a nation which does not endorse one religion over another (or, perhaps, any religion at all). But historical oppression of Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims by a majority has illustrated the fragility of the First Amendment in the face of the mob. I say a “mob,” because the United States is not meant to be governed by ‘majority rule,’ it is a country which purports to protect minorities–whether they be racial, religious, intellectual, sex, or sexual orientation–from the tyranny of the majority.

But of course it matters. Research in psychiatry and psychology has noted that humans, as social creatures, respond most positively when they are a part of something larger than themselves–little wonder, then, that religion is so dominant a perspective in our lives. I use the word “religion,” but I mean any articulated belief system (and yes, a rationalist perspective advancing the supremacy of science is an example of an articulated belief system, and may be described in this manner as a religion). After all, we can understand and have complete faith in the efficacy of gravity (it has literally never been disproven, as far as humanity knows) without knowing the why; postulating that the why is irrelevant–or, for that matter, speculating on the why at all–is literally an act or statement of faith. In any case, what matters to a discussion on these belief systems is the uncomfortable fact that each of us tends to have beliefs that we regard as truth, such as: that Christ died for our sins; that there is one God and Jews are His chosen people; that good people are rewarded in heaven, and bad ones condemned to hell; that God is the ‘opiate of the masses’ and humanity is steadily progressing toward a socialist communal lifestyle of rational equality; or even that there is no God at all, and He was invented as a panacea for the terrible greatness and apparent unpredictability of our world, and that we have developed so far as to understand that, and may eventually understand all things. Such beliefs are examples, of course. They are probably facile and archetypal. I don’t pretend to speak for any person, though I suspect that some kind of core belief lies at the bottom of every human’s value system.

From the standpoint of meaning, there is no connection between recognizing the importance of belief in human cognition and self-regard, and the truth or fiction of the beliefs themselves. I am a Catholic, and I believe Jesus Christ was a real person who was also really God, who suffered a horrible death made worse by my sins, and who in doing so redeemed humanity. That belief has informed my entire perspective on the world, and mostly unconsciously–I bet it’s engrained upon my soul in ways I will never, ever comprehend (even after a lifetime of reflection). It is almost certainly the primary source of my values and therefore of my interaction with the world. So, from a psychological standpoint I actually need that belief, because without it there is no foundation for my perspective. I need that belief the way a Jew, a rational humanist, a principled atheist, or really anyone else needs their own core beliefs.  Yet the need for such a belief does not–cannot–imply that such beliefs are either true or false. Just because something is necessary does not mean it is manufactured. Truth or falsehood is another matter entirely, and one for the theologians and philosophers.

Truth and falsehood are also very touchy subjects. I know many an atheist who would brindle at the very suggestion that his or her rational world-view is in fact a sort of faith (religion) with its own doctrine and structure. By making that faith-based critique, I am quite literally attacking the foundation of his/her self, the place of his/her most deeply held beliefs. It’s important to remember that. When encountering a news story about a legal decision favoring a religious group, or perhaps an email or social media anecdote about one person getting the better of another, or even lamenting or lauding a decision regarding Christmas Nativity scenes or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, most people will react strongly because the perceived ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ is either very self-affirming or very threatening.

On that note, I’ll remind my fellow Christians that “proselytize” is a negatively connoted word, implying that the proselytizer is representing or practicing their beliefs in a way that intrudes upon the victim. Comments like “God is watching!” and “God would be so happy!” on a story, picture, or other piece of internet media are proselytizing comments. They actually condemn (though indirectly) those who don’t share the commenter’s particular perspective. In the New Testament, Jesus pretty explicitly forbids condemnation, as does the Apostle Paul. I think the Christian community (and the world) would be much better served with comments like “I disagree with…” or “I think this is wonderful…,” mostly because such comments establish a perspective based on values, and therefore acknowledge the dignity of other people’s values, without intruding upon them.

Traditional Catholics may point out that one of the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy is to ‘admonish the sinner.’ I agree, though I would add that admonishing the sinner does not excuse one from respecting their essential dignity as a free, rational human being, and would beg to recall Jesus’ own comment about the mite in one’s neighbor’s eye with respect to the beam in one’s own. Besides, disagreeing with someone out of conviction does not condemnation of their world-view. And for those who find value in the act of asserting themselves (the “I won’t apologize if someone else is offended!” set), then I would reiterate Jesus’ call to Charity and turning the other cheek, and remind that causing offense, even if it’s unwarranted, is a sure way to cause further division.

Finally, I’ll say that no-one should have to tiptoe around their beliefs. I certainly don’t. But if the First Amendment’s promise is to come true in our society regarding religion, then we all need to practice our own belief system–rational or faith-based (or both)–with courtesy and respect for others. A good first step for this is to stop proselytizing and to engage others’ values instead of their beliefs, and by extension their essential personhood.

On Pope Francis and the teachings of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis has really shaken up the Catholic Church this time. He affirmed that people of good will, even if they are atheists, are close to Christ. He condemned the, er, widespread condemnation of homosexuals. He has called for the Church to more open and welcoming, which is seen by many as a hint he will relax the mandates of the Catholic Magisterium. His “stance,” a ridiculously vague term which implies his worldview, agenda, and perspective, has prompted much spilling of ink on these controversial subjects from news media and Catholic commentators. And yet he has affirmed Church teaching as well. What could be going on?

I think the commentators may be missing the point. Pope Francis wouldn’t be the first pope to install sweeping changes, but until that happens I’m going to assume that he is doing what his predecessors have done, which is teach the faith. And so far, his comments affirm what the Catholic Church has always taught, though perhaps not with so much emphasis: that humans have free will gifted to them by God, with which others should not interfere; that they are called to follow their conscience to be people of good will; and that they must treat others as they would treat themselves.

These teachings mirror, as far as I can tell from my own scriptural study, what Jesus himself taught. Remember the Good Samaritan, the woman charged with adultery, the tax collector at the temple, the centurion, and the Prodigal Son? In each of stories, Jesus chooses forgiveness over condemnation. He also identifies unlikely protagonists; namely Samaritans, Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and outright, confessed sinners. Most homilies/sermons I’ve heard on these scriptural passages emphasize that the humble, the lost, those seeking goodness are the ones close to God–and the spiritual authorities (the Pharisees) are outside God’s favor.

Notably, the Gospels have little good to say about the Pharisees. They constantly try to trick Jesus and get him to blaspheme against the law, they grumble about him associating with enemies of the Jews, and Jesus himself condemns them pretty stridently, calling them “hypocrites.” The reason for this, I think, is because they are overly scrupulous, a word which used to mean “overly concerned with rules.” Put simply, to be scrupulous, a person must be dedicated so much to following the letter of laws and dictates that he or she fails to accomplish the good for which those laws and dictates were instituted in the first place.

Pope Francis seems to have evoked this element of Gospel teaching in his recent statements, speeches, and interviews…and it is not surprising that he has caused a furor in doing so. The Gospel’s challenge in this regard is a very personal one, and it strikes at the core of each person’s unconscious, but deeply held, beliefs and convictions. Left to each of our own devices, I’m sure we would each live a good life according to our own perception and experience. But such is not our world: we are immersed in society, and so we contact nearly infinite other perspectives and experiences. What are we to do when another perception, or someone else’s experience, challenges our own?

This question is not a Catholic one; it is a universal one. Who among the people of the earth today has never been shamed out of an opinion by someone else’s story, or never had a rival in love, or cause for jealousy, or has violated his or her own values? These essential human conflicts we can resolve in one of three ways: first, we can ignore the conflict by becoming a hermit–either separate from the world, or existing within it yet unwilling to challenge our fellows; second, we can identify one rigid set of values to give our interactions structure, and never change them no matter what additional experience we receive; third, we can interact dynamically with our world, seeking understanding of others, though we are aware that we might hurt them. The third option requires love, humility, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness, and it is the Catholic answer, for the Gospel teaches it.

With much distinguished scholarship on sin, objective evil, and the elements of a good life, the Catholic Church has (probably inadvertently) created the elements of a rigid set of values, for those who choose the ease of such a moral compass. Yet other members of the Church (and our society) seem to withdraw from the difficulty of true compassion and generosity, preferring a simpler course of benevolently accepting all experiences–and, along the way, granting themselves license to ignore the idea of “true values” in favor of no values.

I don’t mean to generalize here. I realize that few, if any, people live their lives entirely on one side of the spectrum or another. In truth, I suspect that each of us has beliefs about which we are scrupulous, and others which we choose not to engage. But Pope Francis seems to be guiding Catholics toward the third way, reminding them that they have a responsibility to dynamically engage the world, seeking to love and care for all people–even (or perhaps especially) for those who are most offensive and pharisaical to them. Whatever sins we abhor in our neighbor, remember Jesus calls us foremost to love them anyway.

And should we be tempted to pass judgment when dynamically engaged, I submit that we remember (whether we are progressive or traditional Catholics, for all that we imperfectly know of God’s perspective from the Bible and Church teaching, and no matter the reach of our perspective which is necessarily limited by the tiny fraction of humans we happen to know) that in the end we surely must admit that cannot know the heart of God (as the bible reminds us though Isaiah and Christ himself).

So let us not commit the sin of the Pharisees, and use our religion to condemn and degrade others, either by accusing them of a lack of love or by passing judgement on them for failing to sufficiently respect the rules. Let us not pridefully arrogate God’s province of salvation and condemnation to our imperfect human understanding. Let us remember Jesus’ warning about the child and the millstone, and remember that when we fail to love and be compassionate for someone who appears to us as sinful, and then treat them with disdain and unlove, then we may very well be the agent of their stumbling in their relationship with God.

I believe that is the message of Pope Francis. It can be boiled down to love your neighbor, whether he/she is scrupulous or progressive, tends toward latin mass or the vernacular, is gay, or has had an abortion, or is divorced. Loving your neighbor doesn’t mean condoning what they do, but there’s a catch here. If one perceives a sin in someone else, couching a correction (or condemnation) in loving words is not the same thing as loving them. In fact, it is usually the opposite. And anyway, we are pretty specifically told to focus on our own sins, which–if we presume to pretend that we’re better than others morally–may trend toward the deadly.

As far as how to love our neighbor, I suppose our best teacher is Jesus, who wants us to feed, clothe, care for, and visit in prison our neighbors, in metaphorical ways as well as material. Pope Francis, bless him, provides us an excellent example of this, and the crowing or panicked pundits of his papacy only indicate that we certainly need both his reminder to love, and his leadership.

The Injustice of our Over-Sexualized Society

I’ve heard/read a lot of discussion about sex recently. More so than usual, in fact. I think perhaps Ms. Cyrus’ glorification of wanton, objectifying lust at the recent Video Music Awards (VMAs) is chiefly responsible for re-kindling this long-running social debate.

Because much of our interaction occurs on the internet, there has been a glut of responses to the VMA performance, particularly, and been some popular blog posts on the subject of over-sexualized young people, generally. Social media friends of mine have posted among themselves two articles in particular that caught my attention. The first is an “FYI” (for your information) by one Mrs. Hall to girls who post sexy pictures of themselves on social media; the second is one of many dismayed responses to that “FYI.”

I’m not here to criticize (at least, to criticize any more than stating my opinions and thoughts should be construed as criticism). My heart goes out to Ms. Cyrus because I worry that sometime in the future she will regret her lascivious performance at the VMAs. She may regret it because she’s tired of hearing about it, or because she worries what her parents, future boyfriends, or future husbands will think, or because she doesn’t want her children (if she decides to have any) to see her in that degrading sexual way.

Worst of all, she may even have relationship troubles and/or decide not to have children because of that performance (and it’s backlash).

After all, many have pointed out that it was an excellent attention-getter, and in my experience most people who want attention have some emptiness inside they hope the attention will fill. If that’s true with Ms. Cyrus, then it’s likely that she will cling at least partially to whatever ideology of hedonism or reckless youth inspired her to create her drug-celebrating, sex-celebrating, promiscuity-celebrating song–or to, er, ‘perform’ Mr. Robin Thicke’s sex-celebrating song–in the first place, because it got her some attention. It’s also something of an ideology today to forego regret and embrace mistakes, because…well, I don’t know. A sign of maturity is recognizing past mistakes and resolving to do better, which is also a form of atoning for those mistakes, and which implies regret (because if you didn’t regret it, then why was it a mistake?). Unfortunately, refusing to admit mistakes and celebrating promiscuity do not conduce to long-term, loving, trusting relationships. As I am fortunate enough to be in such a long-term, loving, and trusting relationship, and I realize just what I wonderful thing it is, I hope that Ms. Cyrus (along with everyone else) finds it in her life.

So I hope my concern is warrantless. But the idea of celebrating sex, and the idea of freedom from mistakes and regrets, is not limited to Ms. Cyrus or Mr. Thicke. We’ve all had those ideas in our lives, because we’ve all experienced the excitement, desire, and lust for sex, as well as the unpleasant guilt, anger, and depression that comes from making a mistake (and for the record, I’m talking about all mistakes here, not just the relationship ones. Botched interviews, incomplete projects, hurtful words, everything). It’s a psychological certainty that as we begin to experience sexual desire, we will model our parents’ behavior towards the same. It’s also virtually certain that our reckless teenage brains will revolt against our parents’ staid views, and that we will in some way, big or small, experiment with sexuality. And by the time we are full adults, most of us will have had some actual sexual experiences (good, bad, and ugly) and will have reflected a bit on them: rarely maybe just by ourselves but certainly when confronted with those we hurt along the way, or those who loved us along the way, or our own pain or heartbreak.

All that reflection certainly does not mean the end of sexual desire or the freedom that we felt as teenagers. In a good relationship, such ‘teenage feelings’ ought to be part of the emotional connection. Certainly a multi-thousand-year-old canon of love stories, love songs, love poetry, and well, love bears witness to the fact that at our best, we don’t grow out of excitement, desire, and carefree recklessness. We might temper it with some restraining virtue as our prefrontal cortex develops in our mid-20s, but we don’t get rid of it. How would our relationships last otherwise?

But our collective experience of these things should teach us not to condemn it in our youth. I think it’s a pity that today’s teenagers got to see the VMAs, it’s a pity they have such easy access to sometimes very disturbing pornography, and it’s a pity that social media makes people so accessible. But if a teenager, boy or girl, is interested or desirous of sexuality, that’s neither bad nor good–it’s totally amoral. It’s a result of their development as a human being. The only negative about it their exposure to what I would consider unhealthy sexuality (Ms. Cyrus’ performance, disturbing pornography), and the fact the entire world can see their development and their mistakes via social media.

The original FYI subtly condemned some young women–friends of the sons of the author–who posted sexually alluring pictures of themselves on social media websites. Ignoring the fact that it was cruel and demeaning criticism, with detailed and contemptuous noting of a lack of a bra, or an arched back, the article explicitly held the young women responsible for the possibility of unhealthy sexual thoughts in Mrs. Hall’s sons. The responses are consequently fun to read: they point out that young men also post pictures of themselves in sexually alluring (in a masculine way) poses; and more to the point they note that whatever desire a young man might feel, healthy or not, it is his responsibility and his alone to behave well.

I won’t rehash their arguments, but I encourage you to check them out. If you happen to think that the alluring or sexy behavior of a young woman, however self-demeaning it might be, is an good reason for you to treat her demeaningly yourself, then perhaps you in particular need to read the responses.

I wish, however, to add two additional considerations. The first is a study which showed that a male confronted with a picture of a scantily-clad, sexually alluring female has increased activity in the area of his brain that relates to tools and other items he can manipulate; the second is the fact that nothing we record and/or post on line is ever, ever erased in our frighteningly new technological age.

The first consideration helps explain (but certainly does NOT excuse) why men are disposed to treat women who present themselves sexually worse than they ought. It also probably explains why Mrs. Hall, who no doubt wishes for her sons to grow up into respectful and gentlemanly men, has some misplaced (and justly condemned) anger against the sexy selfies she saw on social media.

The second consideration is really more of a personal preservation piece of advice. Fortunately most of us, if we ever made an exhibition of ourselves like Ms. Cyrus did, (publicly or to a partner), we can safely hide it away in our past where we won’t have to explain ourselves to future partners, spouses, or children. Social media took off after I had graduated from college, and I shudder to think what my statuses or pictures would have shown had I been able to post them publicly. Now, sexy selfies, videos of less-than-respectable party behavior (whether silly drunkenness or salacious dares) and other records of typically reckless, experimental teenage behavior are there for the viewing–by everyone. Literally, everyone in the world. They’ve been used to bully and demean, too. Make no mistake that such evidence which may by right be personal and private, but by reality are accessible to everyone, may determine to a large degree one’s reputation.

Furthermore, while I personally hold that promiscuous, reckless, or demeaning behavior is equally bad in girls and boys, I don’t think that’s a very widely held perspective. Mrs. Hall, along with (no doubt) many mothers of sons, seems predisposed to blame alluring young women for the vicious thoughts of men; the male frat-boy locker room culture of male college students and young professionals seems to have no problem with the essential hypocrisy of demanding easy sex but condemning ‘easy women.’ Which is very unfair. Food for thought.

So if you do find yourself looking at a sexy selfie of a young girl on some social media site (Mrs. Hall and any other parent or teenager), remember that the young person in question is probably in the process of discovering sexuality for the first time, and is maybe expressing a totally understandable and fairly universal desire to be attractive to the opposite sex, and is ultimately behaving just like the young men who post shirtless pictures of themselves at the beach. And if you argue that it’s ‘boys being boys’ for the young men, but find yourself feeling shocked and/or condemnatory about the young women, then perhaps we should re-evaluate the phrase, ‘boys will be boys’ and advise our children to stop over-sexualizing themselves, regardless of their own sex. Then perhaps the young girls that Mrs. Hall, along with much of society, picks on might get a break from the unjust blame and contempt and responsibility.

Because we all recognize the importance of raising virtuous children. Many have noted that Ms. Cyrus and Mr. Thicke are notably devoid of certain virtues like respect, for self or others, as an explanation for their overtly, almost offensively sexual behavior. (Which is perhaps unfair to Ms. Cyrus because she’s only in her early 20s and therefore hasn’t finished developing the part of her brain that houses virtue, while Mr. Thicke is in his 30s and has no excuse.)

Such judgment may be true, academically. I certainly wouldn’t wish to act like Ms. Cyrus, because her performance at the VMAs seemed degrading and elicited disgust in me. I hope I could make that judgment without judging her to be a bad person–after all, most people do things because they think they are good things to do, not because they have malice in their heart. Yet condemning Ms. Cyrus, or any young women who uses sex as a form of allure in what they say, or how they dress, or even (yes) what they do, is shifting the blame. It binds upon them some of our own individual guilt about sex or sexuality, and it is a mean and bullying pathway to feel good about ourselves.

So let’s start by treating everyone, perhaps especially the over-sexed among us, with dignity, and let’s teach our children the same. It’s better for us, better for our relationships, better for the people we meet–and it will be better in all those ways for our children, and for those who meet them.

My Farewell to Arms

I stood on the steel staircase landing and looked out over the river, which had seemed impossibly big when I first saw it. The brackish, heavy air stirred around me and carried with it the scents of heat, of humidity, of mud and gently decomposing vegetation. It was, for me, the smell of the Corps.

A trivial errand had brought me to DMO, which stands for “Distribution Management Office.” It was one of those ever-changing acronyms in the Marine Corps–it had been TMO, or “Traffic Management Office” for as long as I could remember. It had the same function now as it did before, which was taking your military orders and translating them into a government contract for a moving company, so you could be moved as painlessly as possible. Perhaps at one time it was staffed by Marines, and moderately efficient. Now it was staffed mostly by civilians, which I viewed with a healthy distrust. Most, I’m sure, were diligent and hard-working…but the Marine spouse who I’d spoken to earlier, and who set up my move, had received me like a bad cold and lectured me in a voice both whiny and severe about the limitations of my particular move.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my check-out sheet–on which I was required to get her signature–when I had first seen her, which meant today’s trip to this dilapidated brick building. The steel staircase felt like a patch, added recently to cover some defect in the original building. An apt metaphor for DMO itself: a sad, uneasy hybrid of the Marine Corps and the vast, suffocating apparatus of support that grows like fungus on the military organization.

The first time I saw the river, I stood on sweltering asphalt outside Bobo Hall. I had just stuffed some 1500 calories in my face while Drill Instructors screamed and strutted all around me. Terrified of their attention, I bolted my food and ran outside to the comparative safety of my place in formation and my “knowledge,” the little read handbook I had to read in every spare moment not occupied by instruction. As I meditated intently on Lieutenant Bobo, who to cover the retreat of his Marines had jammed the severed stump of his leg into the dirt of Vietnam to stop the bleeding, and who won the medal of honor for it, I noticed that this “river” flowing past was tremendously wide. Wider than the Columbia River, by far. Nearly as wide as Lake Washington.

The pungency of the air contained many memories. There is a particular smell to Virginia–maybe just to Quantico–that is known to every Marine Corps officer. A smell that reminds of early mornings and aching chests after a run, or the slimy cool of the Quigley, or the itch and suppression of a flak jacket, vest, and pack in the treeline. It reminds of Drill Instructors with massive arms and veins popping out all over their neck and face as they scream, of taciturn Captains exuding contempt and disappointment at another failed attack, of the heavy numbness of pack and rifle and road and the back of the Marine in front of you, which sets in and carries you through the hours of a forced march.

The overwhelming feeling of being yanked back to the very beginning, of returning to where it all started, is gone. I am back in my car, and irritably searching for a parking spot near the IPAC (Installation Personnel Administration Center, a sweatshop of administration Marines struggling to handle all the administration problems of tens of thousands of other Marines assigned to Quantico). In the back of my mind, I’m wondering what other memories I’ve buried.

I’m trying to control my astonished wonder at the ghostly green nearness of the mountains. They slide by, fast and deadly, invisible unless I swing my goggles at them. Then they are dangerously close. But I’m conscious that it is my friend in the other jet, struggling to earn his qualification, and we need these attacks to go well. So I drop my gaze under my goggles, watching the displays. Weapons page, set. HUD to the left DDI. I glance to my left and see the other aircraft zip through two small mounds, level with us. I frown. I know we, the wingman, are supposed to stay above our lead for safety. But my pilot is also the flight evaluator, an experienced and outstanding pilot. I wonder, as I nervously flick my eyes between the HUD, the approaching desert floor, and the lead aircraft slowly rising above us, if my pilot is maneuvering to look at something, or to test the other aircraft, or simply is holding a more disciplined altitude than the relatively inexperienced lead. Am I imagining, or is the ground getting closer? How close are we? Wait, I can’t tell. The altimeter says 2,160 feet. Without thinking I say, “RADALT to the HUD.” Suddenly G-forces come on, and we angle upwards. The RADALT alarm sounds our proximity to the ground as the pilot adjusts it. The altimeter, showing 2,230, instantly switches to 240. There’s an instant of nausea, as I marvel that we were flying less than 300 feet above the deck with absolutely none of the safety precautions in place to prevent a collision with the ground, if for but a few seconds we fail to pay attention. Then I realize we’re coming up on the target, and I hurriedly bring up the Litening Pod display on the right. Over the ICS, I hear my pilot say, “RADALT to the HUD. Thanks.”

I joined the Marine Corps chiefly to be free of my parents’ financial support. But a latent streak of romantic adventurism awakened as I arrived on that hot, humid asphalt in the summer of 2003. There was the icy, nauseating fear of the drill instructors, but also this strange exhilaration in the company of my fellow candidates. We were doing great things, in our own way–hiking distances, and performing tasks, and learning things that only days before had been unimaginable. And the sea stories of the prior-enlisted, or the drill instructors (delivered in the form of harsh instruction) made me hunger to travel and take this wonderful, small world of right and wrong, good and bad, of exertion and mission to exotic places. There was the middle east, where the battle of An Nasiriyah had concluded. There were stories of the DMZ in Korea, the Central Training Area of Okinawa, and rumors of Afghanistan. There was more heat in Camp Lejeune, and mountains in Camp Pendleton, and I wanted to see it all. I was in love–and I have remained so until the very end.

One thing true of Marines everywhere is their consciousness of history and tradition, from leathernecks to cake ceremonies, Belleau Wood to Frozen Chosin, and always the revered names of our antecedents like Bobo and Barnum and Chesty. Marines, when prompted, will talk for hours on the lineage of the “blood stripe” on their trousers or the origin of the phrase “Gee-Dunk.” I know all the old histories, too, and will no doubt repeat them more often as an veteran than I ever did as a Marine Officer. But I think the real well-spring and deposit of tradition lies in the time-honored Marine institutions that remain, virtually unchanged, into our modern times.

I shivered. The biting wind mocked both the desert-pattern windbreaker I wore as a “warming layer” and the magnificent desert mountains rearing all around. It was just before dawn, and the sky was beginning to lighten behind the ridges. Twenty-five yards in front of me, a row of man-shaped targets quivered, and between them and me strutted the campaign-covered marksmanship instructors. We waited for the sunrise, which promised warmth and would allow us to begin shooting. I wasn’t looking forward, however, because there was something oddly familiar about this situation. It wasn’t deja vu, but something more like finally seeing a building you’ve only before seen in pictures. I recognized this.

Then suddenly I remembered. E. B. Sledge had been here, had described it in his World War II memoir With the Old Breed. He had described this whole institution: the unspoken expectation of marksmanship, the cold, the weapons, the instructors, the targets, the pits. He might have been to this range, actually, for he described the remote Camp Eliot which still existed, a mountainous wilderness of hiking trails now sitting under the approach path to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. Before the modern Marine Corps, before helicopter flight, before Iwo Jima and his own battles of Peleliu and Okinawa, before and Khe Sanh and “The March Up” in 1991, Private Sledge had qualified on the timeless ranges of the Marine Corps. Just as I was doing.

A study of history, too, shows that this legacy runs further back than 1942. The two regiments of Marines who went to France in 1918 were reluctantly included by the Army because Congress knew they were already basically qualified soldiers–they had essential marksmanship training, essential training that was reduced for the Army’s conscripts in order to more quickly field combat units. It’s likely that the Marine doughboys of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood knelt on the same hard ground with their Springfield rifles, re-fought their grandfather’s civil war battles just as today’s Marines re-fight Vietnam and the early battles of the long war in the Middle East.

The general rubbed his hands briefly together in a nervous gesture that could have been his transition to a new topic, a physical equivalent to saying, “um.” But I detected some glee in the movement, and so readied myself for a joke. And I was not disappointed. “When I was a young Lieutenant in the late seventies,” he began, “my platoon lived up in Camp Margarita on Pendleton. And we lived in these really crappy barracks. There was a single squad bay, with a partition at one end for me and my platoon sergeant’s desks. It was crumbling and dirty, no matter how many times we field day’d the place, and the showers were always backed up and the toilets never worked. And being a conscientious and enterprising lieutenant, I filled out the chit every Friday specifying the discrepancies and requesting maintenance to come to fix the plumbing. One day, as I was dropping the chit off in the Facilities section, the gunny who was there said, ‘hey wait a minute, Lieutenant.’ I turned back and said, ‘yes, gunny?’ He motioned me close–” the general made a comical beckoning motion–“and said, ‘now I like you, Lieutenant. You seem like you’re really trying to do the right thing here. But I gotta say, those barracks you’re living in are condemned. They’re scheduled to be replaced in the next five years, so nobody’s going to spend any money to fix them at all.’ And he pointed to a drawer, where I could see every chit I’d ever written neatly filed.” The general paused as an appreciative chuckle swept through the Lieutenants. “Well, I went back and continued writing my chits, but I was a little satisfied to know that there would be new buildings soon.” He paused for a second. “Fast forward to the early two thousands, when I became the CG of 1st Marine Division. Shortly after I arrived back on Camp Pendleton, I drove up to Camp Margarita to see the new barracks. By then I was wise enough not to be surprised when I saw the same old crappy, crumbling barracks standing there.” A muted laugh from the audience. “But I parked my car and headed into the same old squad bay to find a Lieutenant sitting at the same desk behind the same partition, doing some paperwork. He jumped up quick when he saw mygeneral’s star, but I calmed him down–” another muted laugh–“and asked him how the Barracks were. ‘Well, sir,’ he replied, “the toilets don’t work and the showers are always backed up! I write a chit every Friday after field day, but I’m told…'” Here the general paused for dramatic effect, with the air of an impending punch line, “‘that these buildings are scheduled to be torn down in five years and new ones built in their spot!'” The laughter was loud and long.

The amazing thing about the Marine Corps is this vital continuity of experience, the feeling of being part of something meaningful, with roots in the past and a mission for the future. Generations of Marines have field day’d crumbling buildings and ships, and written chits that were ignored, and felt the lash of a salty, scornful, authoritative tongue on their sincere efforts. Generations of officers have struggled to care for their Marines who are coping with substandard living conditions, and have with secret pride rejoiced in the Corps’ preference to spend money on training rounds and field rations rather than cushy barracks with serviceable plumbing. The great work of the Marine Corps, to win battles and make good citizens, continues in the small details and virtues that are comical, and ridiculous, and the very lifeblood of the military.

In the gathering darkness I watched them line up in the LZ. The shouts and complaints, audible in the still air, told of their exhaustion. Steam rose from their necks and faces, and I shivered. Forcing myself to be still, despite the lack of warming layers (which I had conspicuously stripped), I waited until the student platoon commander told me they were ready “to step.” Hoisting my pack smoothly I took my spot at the front left of the column, and started walking.

By now it was dark, and large flakes of snow were falling. I could feel their despair behind me. Despair is not too strong a word, because after their first wake-up-and-full day-of attacks in the field, they were beat down. Bad. I knew how they felt–the sweat, clammy and gritty with dirt but now freezing, the shaky legs and ankles, sore from walking up and down and alongside hills all day. It didn’t help that I was marching them past their quarters in Graves Hall, whose windows shone with warm light. There was despair dragging behind me as the dark closed in, and the sad and terrible finality of falling snow extinguished any hope of warmth and light. I had been through it all before, and I knew why ancient people worshipped the sun.

But the despair was born of fear, and baseless fear at that. Soon, I knew, we would arrive at our next LZ, and the snow would keep our sleeping bags dry in the freezing air. I knew we soon would be happily bivouacked. And so I strode remoselessly on, swinging off the paved road on to gravel. Here the carefully constructed model officer I projected to the world fell apart, for I tripped on a pothole and face-planted, with 80-odd pounds of pack helping to drive the point home. Almost immediately, the students had picked me up and were asking if I was okay. I growled at them a thanks and continued to stride, angry and embarrassed but otherwise unhurt. After several paces I commented to my student platoon commander that at least I gave them something to use against me at Mess Night.

We tramped across the wooden bridge, and climbed raggedly up Cardiac Hill. As I strode away from the top, I heard murmurings behind me that swelled, slowly, until someone finally yelled, “stop!” I stopped, turned around, and asked who had fallen back. The students, in huddled postures, told me the name of the two Marines who hadn’t kept up, and again I felt their despair clutching at me. The night was cold, the woods were close, and two of their peers were lost somewhere behind. Angry at their weakness, I told my student platoon commander to keep the platoon there, and I took a squad leader with me back down the hill. Eventually I found my Marines, struggling and slow, morale as bad as I’d ever seen. They were uninjured, however, so I told them to continue after us and I walked back to the main group.

Some packs were off, the quintessential expression of defeat for students. I ignored the questioning (pleading?) glances, took my place at the head of the column, and began walking. There was a sullen scramble behind me to pick up and begin again. But it was easy going from here, as the road was flat, and soon we’d turned in the treeline.  The slow Marines had caught up. The trail endd at another LZ, where there were other platoons and some vehicles, engines humming comfortably. I had my students take off their packs and sit on them, and talked briefly about the next day’s event. Then I let them go make up their sleeping positions. Before lying down, I checked in with my firewatch Marines and chatted briefly with the Marines who were still awake.

From my sleeping bag, slowly warming up with my body’s heat, I finally appreciated the beauty and the stillness of snow, delicately outlining every branch and quieting the world. After that night, I never felt any fear or despair in my Marines, and I hoped they learned the lesson: with a Mission to accomplish, and Marines to lead, they can get through anything–or rather, certainly through harder trials than a snowy night hike.

For nearly nine years (thirteen if you count my time in ROTC, which most don’t, but which seemed quite military to me at the time) I have loved and served this institution. I have shivered in wet foxholes, and soaked in coffee to stay awake through the small hours while preparing some report or another. I have honed my skills at air-to-air combat and close air support in readiness for conflict, used some of the same Quonset Huts at Iwakuni as the Marines who occupied Japan in 1945. I have suffered the disappointment of my peers and superiors and (worst of all) my Marines, and have taken joy in our shared successes, and I have grown up. Grown to know that I could truly give to a marriage, truly give to my children, truly face danger and difficulty and uncertainty and yet do something constructive.

I have many sea stories to tell and re-tell in nostalgic moments to come. The Naval Service still holds sway over my heart and the thrill of new, dangerous places is only a memory away. But I have found a greater love in my wife and child, and a hitherto unknown desire for peace and quietude. So it is time to hang up my uniform. I taste, one last time, that particular air of the Marine Corps: brackish water and effort and heat and the joyful burden of scrutiny and responsibility. I look out at that river which started it all, the strange brown river as big as a lake and a visible sign that home was far away and I was, then, somewhere completely different. It was exciting, terribly exciting, and I followed that excitement a lover.

But now, with happy memories, it is time to go home.

Semper Fidelis.

The Korea Deployment

Part 1 – The Arrival

“Hey man, I’m sending you on Wednesday.” I lifted my chin slightly, like I always do when confronting bad news or criticism. Wednesday was indeed bad news. I’d counted on having most of a weekend before leaving. “We just needed some guys to go early, to help set up. I wanted people familiar with all the systems.”

I cursed silently, looking the Major in the eyes. I hoped he couldn’t read my inner monologue. I replied, “Roger, sir. Make sense.” I had to admit, it did make sense. I did know the systems better than anybody in the squadron, really, except one person—and he was senior to me. Things being based on seniority and proficiency around here led to some cold, hard decisions. Oh well. As the recruiting poster said, nobody promised me a rose garden.

“Thanks Schrags.” The major turned to go.

And so I left early. Scheduled for the first C-130 out of Iwakuni, actually. I was going to Yechon Air Base, Korea as advanced party for exercise Foal Eagle 2010. It wasn’t a good deal.

Korea is usually a choice destination. Mostly, we go to Osan Air Base, a cushy, full-service Air Force Station. The kind of place where the Q (slang for the Bachelor Officer Quarters, normally abbreviated “BOQ”) is about as nice as an upscale hotel, there’s a Chili’s restaurant on base, a decent gym, and a chapel for religious guys like me. Osan is also notable for the maze of streets outside the main gate, chock-full of shops hawking NFL jerseys, leather products, jewelry, custom suits, and handbags. Since most of those products are originally produced in Korea to be sold at a fantastic mark-up in the US, it’s a way to get authentic and fashionable objects cheap. Or it’s at least a way to get a pretty good knock-off. Naval Aviators like myself have been getting G-2 leather jackets manufactured to the original specifications in Korea for a quarter of the usual cost in the United States. Everyone usually gets excited about Korea.

Except for Yechon. Yechon is in the middle of nowhere, far from bazaars and amenities. A small Korean Air Force training base, its chief “amenity” of interest for our Marine higher-ups is a collection of three fields to which we can deploy as if we’re going to an undeveloped airfield. And by deploy, I mean set up tent cities from which we live, work, plan, brief, and conduct aircraft maintenance in a “field” setting. Just to show that we can. You know, if we needed to go to an empty piece of freshly-conquered territory and set up an airfield. Just in case. Because we’re “expeditionary,” like. We can operate from “austere environments.” Unlike, of course, those comfort-loving Air Force zoomies who prefer to live, launch, and recover from vast and luxurious airfields and waste the not inconsequential fuel and aircraft flight time of their uncounted tanker aircraft to get their fighters and attack jets to the fight. Or the Navy squids who come with a ready-built and fully-appointed airfield sitting just off-shore. Of course, one might say that six months in an enclosed, steel city is “austere” enough. It’s really the Air Force guys that get my goat. No hard feelings of course. But living in the field is hard and well, it’s hard to be hard.

So there I digress. It won’t be the last time, I promise. But there I was on Wednesday morning with a fully-packed ruck-sack and a fully-packed seabag. With every undershort and undershirt I owned, in case the laundry wasn’t available. I didn’t expect it to be available, as you might guess. The vagaries of an “austere” environment, and all. It’s funny, really—there’s nothing like the prospect of austerity to make you enjoy luxury. I swear a shower and a clean shirt meant more to me the night before I left than it ever had before. But there I go digressing again. In any case, a dear comrade was also scheduled to leave that day, on a second C-130 taking off an hour after mine. We hoofed our heavy luggage into the Passenger Terminal, which on Iwakuni is a spartan room not far removed from a Quonset Hut (and in fact is surrounded by several Quonset Huts that house offices of the Visiting Aircraft Line—Quonset huts, no doubt, that were originally raised in 1945 when the Marine Corps occupied the airfield after V-J day).

The Marines traveling with us had to be there much earlier than we did, worse luck, because their NCOs and Staff NCOs weren’t going to risk their being late. Because that would not do at all. Reflect poorly on the Marine Corps, like. Especially since zoomies were flying our transport C-130s. The C-130 Marines were apparently unavailable. Probably reluctant to leave their cushy hotel rooms. When my comrade and I arrived, the other Marines traveling with us lifted accusing eyes over their playing cards and cheap paperback novels and left an awkward question unasked in the air: “where the hell have you been?” Fair point that—they had been awake and present hours before us. So we dropped our bags in the pile and settled lowly into our seats. In the knick of time, of course. Irresponsible officers.

An hour later, the droning of a C-130 could be discerned through the paper-thin windows. A pushy young Marine in charge of the terminal organized us to “palletize” our luggage, which is a nice word to describe the mad rush of a working party that grabs all seabags and ruck-sacks in a given pile and slams them unceremoniously on a pallet, where they are crushed together with cargo netting to make them secure for transport. It’s old military wisdom that you carry anything breakable on your person. It can’t be too heavy, though, because after you’ve treated everybody’s valuable possessions as horizontal punching bags you get weighed with all your carry-on baggage. Apparently it’s important for airplanes to know how much cargo they’re carrying. Not really a factor in the ol’ F/A-18D hornet, as the 50-pound brains at Boeing and China Lake figure out what we can and can’t carry slung under the wings. We just know what we can’t carry. It makes things a little easier. Not so for these “tactical airlift” platforms, however—they could carry anything from much-needed combat supplies and equipment to a bunch of disgruntled Marines who got up too early to be carted to an “austere” environment for two and a half weeks.

We had a cargo mix-up between the two C-130s, of course. One of the Air Force crews decided that as they had landed early, they were damned well going to take off early, and to hell with the schedule. So for reasons unbeknownst to us poor devildogs, the original order of departees was reversed. Everybody scheduled on the first C-130 was switched en masse to the second, and vice versa. Not the luggage, however. Of course not. It was already palletized. No changing things now! So, ironically, we flew out with the other passenger’s personal items. The only thing that would make it worse is if one C-130 broke, stranding both crews without their pack-up. As we contemplated the odds of suffering that particular disaster, I remembered with a twinge of unease that our sleeping bags were packed also. And Korea was supposed to be cold. Awesome.

The plane ride, of course, was noisy and nauseating. There’s something about a long windowless aluminum tube that disrupts the inner ear—especially when it turns to and for, ascending and descending all the while. But like most of my brethren, I stuffed in some earplugs and went to sleep. I awoke to variations in the constant thrumming of the engine that told my aviation-sharpened senses that we were descending. A pale, dim gray light was visible in the cockpit, one story up from my seat in the cargo bay. I deduced that it was cloudy. And after we finally jolted to the runway and felt the sharp deceleration of the pilot reversing the thrust direction of the propellers, then waited as the aircraft taxied to the main building, then felt the sudden seep of cold air from the rear of the fuselage as the crew dropped the cargo gate, then shivered for twenty minutes as they offloaded the cargo (more important than a bunch of dumb jarheads, obviously), I saw that I was right. I stepped finally into the mist-shrouded and mountainous world of South Korea.

Vignette 1

Huddled slightly in the cold, he stares through his breath at the computer screen. Dim gray light from the late morning sifts in through the low clouds and the translucent plastic window of the “work” tent. It’s another dismal spring day in Yechon. Receding behind him are the sounds of activity: thumping of boots on floor boards, swift clicking of keyboards, voices raised in argument or laughter. He is, for the moment, forgotten. Now, if he’s lucky, no one will call on him for a while, and he has some freedom.

Outside in the gathering dark engines whine as aircraft are started and taxied. The sound is loud and helps mask the presence of others; as his mind wanders the sound becomes a comforting source of white noise, the medium of emptiness and rest. His imagination, once filled with green formation lights glowing along the sides of aircraft and the lighted displays of the cockpits, flies off the airfield faster than any fighter. His thoughts alight in Southern California, eight thousand miles away. Home.

The tasks at hands slowly unstick from his consciousness and fall away completely. The plywood for walling off briefing rooms, the aircraft log-books for the plane with the right engine problem, the computer network set-up that cannot be completed until the aircraft arrive on deck, the Fitness Reports he has to review in his inbox, the need to exercise—they all fade slowly into that delicious white noise along with background chatter behind him. He exhales again and shivers as his breath wafts visibly out over his work-station, then begins the email, “Dear Kate…”

Part II – The Camp

You know those stylized oriental prints? I’d call them Japanese prints, because that’s what most people call them. I dare say most of them are Japanese. But that’s not the point. They’re easy to recognize: sharp, impossibly steep and many mountains; plenty of ominous mist; a red sun or moon? Crazy art, of course. Usually with a pagoda, a samurai, or a kimono-clad lady in the foreground. Perhaps all three. Cartoonish. Well, it hit me as I stared around at South Korea that those prints were actually depicting more or less a real scene. I’d seen those saw-toothed ridges with far too many peaks, too close together; I’d seen that ominous mist; I’d seen that reddish sun (I couldn’t see the sun when I stepped off the C-130, but I would later). It was just like those prints. There were no samurai or pagodas, but maybe those are Japanese things. This was, after all, Korea. But the landscape was both pretty and alien.

I didn’t have much time to contemplate it, however, since our palletized luggage was sitting there and it wouldn’t unload itself. Of course, as an officer I didn’t really have to help—but it doesn’t do to say such things aloud. The essence of Marine Corps leadership is example, and it’s sort of the thing to do to get your hands dirty. Besides, I wanted to get things unloaded quickly and settle as best I might amidst all this austerity. And I don’t like watching other people work without lending a hand. So we conducted a palletization in reverse. The zoomies slung back the cargo net, and every Marine grabbed two or three seabags or rucksacks and amid much cursing humped them over to a waiting 7-ton, whereupon each Marine tossed each bag up to the cargo bed, eight feet above the ground. Not too gentle with our gear, we Marines. Sorta mirrors the way we treat ourselves. And each other. The zoomies watched incredulously. I’m sure they have luggage conveyor belts on their base.

After unloading all our gear we piled into rented minivans for the trip down to our living quarters. There’s apparently a single road on base that winds past the flight line, ducks down a slight incline, forks right as a dirt vehicle track, and ended up at the dusty field where all our tents were pitched. We filled an area the size of a soccer field—and the presence of two goals at either end confirmed that a soccer field was exactly what we’d occupied. In orderly rows the tents stalked, two per “block” with wide paths between. Inside there was wooden flooring that left open a single dirt walkway the length of the tent, while cots were arranged on the flooring every few feet. It looked deceptively neat when I first walked in, of course; there were no Marines there yet. But it was crowded. Even empty it was crowded.

Outside the newly-arrived Marines were roughly sorting the bags by squadron and tent. I picked up my dear comrade’s gear, wondering if he’d soon be here with mine or not. I found a cot in our tent for him, saving a slightly better one for myself. First come, first serve, and anyway we were both close to the heater and far from the door. For maximum warmth and minimum disturbance, of course. One must think about these things.

Fortunately, the other C-130 was delayed but not broken. It arrived after I’d toured the camp, and everyone was finally re-united with their warm clothes and personal effects. It was a happy reunion. Nothing like an austere environment to make you appreciate what luxuries you have…like a sleeping bag, for example. In any case, as he dropped my stuff in the tent I considered our situation.

The living area was right below the departure end of the runway. About 300 feet, actually. As aircraft took off they thundered scarce hundreds of feet above our heads in afterburner, sending deep vibrations through the metal tent poles and assaulting our ears. A little offset was an ingenious pair of “hygiene tents,” which had sixteen shower heads apiece and nine sinks. Behind those tents stood large bladders of water that would be heated and emptied three times a day when sinks and showers were available for washing and shaving and the like. Pretty chic for an austere environment, no? It didn’t matter, of course, that the sinks were small and cramped or that the mirrors reflected a distorted picture from their stainless steel surfaces. It didn’t matter that the shower stalls were communal and uncomfortably close, or that dirt tracked in quickly coated the stall floors with mud, or that they occasionally failed to drain and would become shallow, grimy pools. The great and wonderful news was that we wouldn’t have to shave with cold water from a canteen, or go without showering for days. Thank God for that!

The “services” were located about a quarter mile up the runway and consisted of a medical tent, a mess tent (for non-military types, “the mess” is where food is served), a chapel tent—with no Catholic services, of course—a little gym packed dustily into the sweat factory of a small tent, and an internet tent for those fortunate enough to have packed a computer (and kept it unscathed through the bag transport). The mess hall served freeze dried food in bulk, but it was hot and not too bad. It also provided fresh fruit and coffee almost every meal, which together neutralized the choking down of re-warmed eggs and chicken and made meals quite the red-letter occasion. Later in the exercise an exchange truck showed up along with a Korean Bazaar hawking cheap t-shirts and accessories, but that suffered but poor business at Foal Eagle, the reason for which will be explained shortly.

The work spaces were up next to the ramp, an aviation term for a vast expanse of concrete for which to park airplanes. As North and South Korea are still technically at war, and Yechon is a military base, the ramp was parsed by revetments into individual parking spots. A revetment is usually an earthen mound built up higher than the object it encloses, and serves to protect something from the blast and fragmentation of an explosion. The aren’t much use against precision weapons, of course, which generally will be guided inside the revetment and thus negates it’s defensive effect, but artillery and “dumb bombs” are usually nowhere near accurate enough. Long experience had shown me that the trappings of war are everywhere evident in Korea. The permanent revetments at Yechon were corrugated steel siding built up to about fifteen feet and filled with dirt. The maintainers set up their work tents in one of the unused revetments; the planning and briefing areas were with command post in a barbed-wire enclosure under the fringe of a small forest on base. Again, tents. Though things were a bit nicer here, as wooden boards were laid for walkways between the various spaces, field-mobile generators provided electrical power, and a ruggedized satellite piped in internet and telephone service. A cut above actual austerity, really. Not that I was complaining.

So yeah, it was camping. The tents were drafty and creaky and more than a few had visible pinprick holes through which the light shone in daytime, the roads were dusty and we walked them back and forth ceaselessly (occasionally stepping out of the way of a passing forklift or cargo truck), and the jets audibly assailed us at all hours of the day. But we had shelter, showers, hot food, internet, and phones. Things weren’t all bad.

Vignette 2

He made his way gingerly to the back of the long tent, stepping gingerly on creaking plywood so as not to disturb the line of cots running the length of the structure on either side of a center aisle. The cots were erected on floorboards, but the center aisle was nothing but dirt. Actually, tonight (like nearly every night) it was a soggy morass of yellow mud.

Were people sleeping, it would be a treacherous journey as (shielding the light of his flashlight so as not to wake his comrades) he’d have to negotiate strewn seabags and backpacks, lines of cord on which hung clothing wet from the constant rain, and the occasional end of a cot sticking out farther than the rest. But fortunately the light was still on. Most of the Marines in the tent were reading or watching movies on laptops as the hours ticked onward. Sleep was on everyone’s mind—it was the only thing that made the time here pass quickly.

As he reached his cot, he knew something was missing. He looked blankly at his little area for a moment, balancing over the muddy aisle. Suddenly it hit him. His backpack! He cursed quietly, remembering he’d left it up at the work spaces. He needed it.

One of the few luxuries at Yechon was the Korean Gym. The Korean Air Force, of course, did not live or work in tents. They had normal dormitories and facilities that were probably pretty nice. Only the Marines were practicing “expeditionary warfare” by enforced austerity. The gym was really a sort of community center, for it had a small restaurant (irreverently called the “Yum Yum Chicken Shop”), a bowling alley, some pool tables, and—wonder of wonders!—a large shower and locker room. The reason he needed his backpack was because he kept his toothbrush and all the rest of his toiletries in the backpack in case he had an opportunity to sneak a shower in that gym during the day. Without it, however, he couldn’t hope to shower or shave the following morning. He’d have to go back to the squadron spaces and pick it up.

He cursed again. It was raining hard, as it had been all day, and the walk up to his backpack was a little over a quarter of a mile. It would not be pleasant.

He shuffled around in his seabag and extracted his gore-tex parka and pants. Cinching them both tight over his flight suit, he clapped a fleece beanie on his head against the forty-degree weather and pulled his hood down low. Carefully he made his way back to the tent entrance, paused for a minute as if having second thoughts, the plunged into the wet outdoors.

Outside was a world of falling water and slippery mud. The floodlights illuminating the tent city showed nothing but hard, driving rain, and the shadows of ruts and tire tracks in the mud gleamed treacherously under his lowered gaze. He walked carefully, so as not to slip, ignoring the rainwater rolling down his face and the gore-tex trousers he kept having to pull up.

After several hundred yards he made the road. The going thereon was easier, since he didn’t have to deal with the mud. He strode purposefully, eager to end his errand. He could feel the rain saturating and soaking through his parka. Away from the lights the world was dark and wet.

The squadron spaces were another illuminated wilderness of mud and falling water, only this time the spectral shape of concertina wire and rifle-toting guards stood out in sharp shadows. Presenting his ID and shivering in the cold brought on by his sudden stop, he ducked into the camp, found his backpack, and began home. By now his feet squelched inside his boots and it was harder to keep the gore-tex pants up as they were weighed down by water. But more than halfway finished with his task, he walked rather more quickly down the hill to the tent city.

After another slippery trip over the mud, he ducked back into his sleeping tent and brushed off the water near the door. Most of the lights were off by now, as his comrades began falling asleep. Making his way back to his cot he stripped off his wet outer garments and hung them up, did the same with his flight suit, and changed into a waterproof track suit for the quick trip back outside to the hygiene tent. All that for the ability to brush my teeth, he thought wryly. I hate this place.

Part III – Camp Life

Remember how I said that things weren’t all bad in Yechon? Well, they weren’t until the first night. Really, to be expected—you know what they say, “If it sounds too good to be true…” I was totally unprepared for the hard, implacable cold that set in when the sun went down.

This was no mere nightly chill such as we find in San Diego, laced with the fragrance of flowers and the softness of the sea. This was no crisp coolness, the delight of autumn evenings. This was continental, wintry cold, dead and dry and soul-sucking. I thought I was prepared. I had all three modular elements of my sleeping bag put together, making it as warm as possible. I was wearing a fleece over a t-shirt and undershorts. And yet I awoke at 3:00 AM by the crushing cold. I couldn’t escape it. With each movement my bare legs or arms would come into contact with some unwarmed patch of my sleeping bag, sending shards of pure, evil cold into my core. Shivering, I quickly sat up and struggled into polypropylene long underwear. Warmed by my struggle and by the added layer, I was able to fall asleep again. Yet I still woke up cold…and as I climbed reluctantly out of my sleeping bags I noticed that the water bottle I kept inside my sleeping bag had frozen. It was apparently still winter in Korea despite the late April date.

The reason for the 3:00 AM wake-up became obvious the next morning. Our “field expeditionary” tent heaters were these little metal cylinders that burned kerosene like a jet engine (in fact, to make logistics easier they burned the same fuel as our aircraft). They didn’t feel very efficient, but that was mostly because they had a cavernous tent to fill with warm exhaust. They also ran out of fuel after eight hours of operation—hence, the 3:00 AM freezing wakeup. Standard. In any case, there were two cold hours spent in the sleeping bag that night before the requirements of nature and the inevitable dawn drove me shivering into the dread Korean winter (ok, spring really) for a morning shave and shower.

Being a prideful military organization, and mindful that there were foreign military personnel to impress, the rules on uniform wear were pretty tight. There was to be no hanging out or loitering, like, in anything less than appropriate civilian attire or full “uniform of the day” when in the camp. Otherwise we might embarrass ourselves in front of our warlike Korean hosts, what with the chained wallets, affliction T-Shirts, and high-end exercise gear that Marines like to wear these days. Though I can’t for the life of me think that we had much to be proud of in front of the Koreans—they probably thought we were crazy enough living in the tundra and mud of their soccer field instead of somewhere indoors. South Korea being a civilized country and all. But that’s neither here nor there; in fact that’s where the brass are. Far above my pay grade.

In any case, those clothing strictures did not apply the hygiene tent. So shivering into my running suit and clapping a fleece beanie on my head, I cobbled together a towel and shaving kit and headed to the sinks. The ground had frozen solid and was a warren of ridges and ruts under my sneakers. I would learn to love a solid ground beneath me in a few days, after the rain set in. There was a ten-minute agonizing wait in line outside the tent before finally, thank God! entrance into the warm moist environment of steamy showers and hot shaving water.

The hygiene tent worked with an admirable, if awkward, efficiency. A quick and self-effacing disrobe, five minutes at the sink, two minutes in the shower, a five-minute period of dressing and packing up (careful not to get more mud than necessary on our persons or gear), then a quick cold shuffle back to the tent. This would be my morning routine for two and a half weeks. Sometimes there would be a line, and the Marines running the tent would yell and belittle and threaten to cut off our water in an attempt to make us more efficient. But if there’s a right way and a wrong way to do such things, well, the yelling and threatening is one hundred per cent the Marine Corps way. Not that it was really necessary, as the cold does wonders for the efficiency of a morning toilette. From there it was a quick walk to the chow hall for freeze-dried eggs and hot coffee (which we’d make last as long as possible) and then a jaunt up the hill to work.

Vignette 3

“Hey, you want to burn one?” asked Mac. To no-one in particular, really, though it was directed at Red Bone.

“Yeah man,” came the response.

“Anybody got extras?” I could tell Mac didn’t feel bad about asking, since most time he provided cigarettes for the rest of the squadron.

“Yeah man,” replied Red Bone, consciously echoing his last utterance. He smiled a little with his eyes to let everyone know his sarcasm was meant humorously.

Craving the company, I popped up from my position next to the computer screen, and made my way to my cot. Navigating the crossing wires, the mud puddles in the central path that stretched the length of the tent, and the clotheslines was almost second nature by now. I quickly flipped back my sleeping bag cover, fished my fleece wash-cap out from under my pillow, and jammed my feet into my sneakers. Their smoke would not entail enough time outside to require a polypropylene layer or anything.

Following them, I bent down to push through the tent flap and suddenly emerged into a monochromatic world. The cold dark night stood face to face with the cold bright night illuminated by the floodlights on the hill. The generators hummed loudly and the gas-powered heating units roared quietly, effectively masking the squelching footsteps of Marines walking to and fro between tents, picking their way carefully between the ruts of vehicle tires and the patches of slippery mud. Shielding my eyes against the floodlights, I followed the smokers into the shadows behind the tent. I paused briefly to let my eyes adjust to the sudden darkness when the floodlight disappeared behind a dumpster.

As I stood their smelling the unadulterated cold, two jets rocketed overhead in sequence from the runway, growing from a sudden roar to an unbearable crescendo of shaking noise, long blue afterburner flames, and flashing red anti-collision lights. My ears ringing, I watched in awe, never having gotten over the magnificent power of fighter airplanes casting off the earth for the freedom of the sky.

The smoke pit lay next to a gully, a tree, and was marked only by a metal pail. Instinctively we huddled into a tight circle, and passed the lighter around. They inhaled gratefully at their cigarette while I stood, hands in pockets, and enjoyed the familiar smell of secondhand smoke.

We were suddenly aware of two Marines walking toward us on the outskirts of the camp. This was not unusual. However, one of the Marines was dressed in a shiny silver overcoat. Our conversation hushed slightly as we watched him walk by. I pulled on my cigarette to avoid making a facial expression, noting that the overcoat was really more of a hoodie, and the silver material appropriate to a space-blanket.

He passed, walking stiffly. He was aware of our sarcastically amused scrutiny.

“That’s an interesting garment” opined one dark figure, jovially.

“Hey, it’s cold outside. It’s like a space blanket” replied another. Captain Obvious, I thought.

“Is your name Marty McFly?” queried a third. There was a pregnant pause, and suddenly we couldn’t help it. We laughed. It only made things funnier to watch my comrades involuntarily cough out mouthfuls of cigarette smoke in their merriment. The silver hoodie was too ludicrously like “Back to the Future.”

Our tight circle momentarily fell apart as the laughter grew. “Dude! Where did you park your DeLorean?” asked one of us, drawing new gales of laughter.

Slowly, happily, conversation returned, but this time to skim-boards, flux-capacitors, and 88 miles per hour. One by one, they finished their cigarettes and we trooped quickly back to our tents through the mud.

That was a happy moment.

Part IV – Flying

He stepped out of the “work” tent into the cold rain. Shivering slightly at the sodden shrubbery outside the barbed wire and the ankle-deep mud within, he strode down the wooden boards towards the mission planning tent. Some planks had become so waterlogged they had split, leaving a hole that could eat your foot if you weren’t careful.

Ducking inside the mission planning tent, he joined with other aircrew to look at the day’s special instructions and code words, incorporating them into the planning for their specific flight. That was the hardest part, he thought—the missions out of Yechon weren’t particularly complicated except for getting around the battle-ready airspace of the peninsula. But part of the reason they were in this exercise was to simulate the complexity of flying within the intricate coordination measures required in a hypothetical conflict, all the while sharing the airspace with aircraft from the Air Force, the Navy, and the South Korean Air Force. The actual training was in the flight procedures, not the tactics.

An hour later, they had updated a common card with that day’s correct information and planned their mission on the computers. Grabbing their flight bags, they trooped through a gray drizzle to a cold tent, empty but for a table and several chairs. He sat down to hear his pilot begin the brief.

The brief mostly covered the procedures for flying. It was more of a rehearsal than an explanation, and it took nearly all the allotted time. Remembering he had yet to get his flight tapes, when it was over he hurried out and down to the intelligence tent, where he signed out several pieces of classified gear and received a pre-flight brief covering the simulated situation. The exercise made things as realistic as possible with daily objectives and a shifting enemy situation.

Armed now with all the paraphernalia required for the flight, he joined his crew members as they slithered through the mud to the maintenance tents. They signed for the aircraft, buckled on their flight gear, and strode out to the airplanes parked in the revetments. The canopies were closed against the rain, so he carried his bag with him on the preflight and was careful not to set it down on the wet pavement. After he looked at the exterior of the aircraft, he paused, waiting for his pilot to finish, and then when they were both ready, the maintainer in charge of the launch opened the canopy. They quickly scurried into their seats and closed the canopy before too much rain could fall. They started the jet a few minutes later, checked in with their wingman, and taxied out of the revetment to the end of the runway.

He called for takeoff clearance. Despite the thick Korean accent of the controller, he deciphered, “Combat six-three, cleared takeoff runway two-eight. Switch departure.” He tapped the comm switch with his right foot, and holding it down responded clearly, “Combat six-three cleared takeoff two-eight, switching.” The noise of the jet engines increased through the helmet and earplugs as his airplane began slowly tracking across the pavement on to the runway concrete. Reaching down to the radio control, he turned the knob to the pre-set departure frequency and pulled the knob out to check the frequency digits.

The jet lurched to a stop on the runway and he turned to look at his wingman taxiing out behind him. As his wingman pulled alongside, the pilot began the complicated exchange of hand gestures that sufficed for communication. First the two fingers wagged two and fro, indicating “run ’em up,” which was followed by another engine surge from both aircraft. He glanced inside the cockpit at the engine indicators to ensure they were both operating smoothly, then flicked his glance up at the Flight Control System display. No error indications.

Quickly he looked over his wingman’s aircraft, staring hard in turn at the panels and the control surfaces, then underneath the aircraft. Nothing was loose, no surfaces were binding, and no fluids were leaking. He saw in the other cockpit both aircrew doing the same for his jet. The other pilot flashed a thumbs up, and over his instrument cowl he saw his own pilot initiate the takeoff gesture: palm flat, rotating slowly down to the throttle. As it disappeared below the canopy, the aircraft lurched with brake release and the engines rolled up quickly. Both aircraft began moving.

He looked back at the engine indications. RPM increasing quickly, matched by engine temperature, fuel flow, oil pressure, and the needles that indicated the varying degrees of nozzle closure. A few seconds later, the just perceptible change in engine timbre as the afterburners lit off. Feeling pleasantly the acceleration pushing him back against his seat, he turned to look at the wingman, tracking along the runway beside him. The scenery was flying by now. Smoothly he felt the aircraft’s nose lift off and he watched his wingman pitch up beside him. They were airborne. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his pilot give the first exaggerated head bob: gear up. Then the second: flaps up. He watched his wingman’s gear retract into the jet and as he felt the three thumps of his own gear he checked his instrument panel. Three gear mounts up and locked.

Depressing the comm pedal with his right foot again, he intoned clearly “Departure, Combat six-three airborne passing five hundred for one-zero thousand.”

“Combat six-three, roger. Climb maintain one-zero thousand” came the accented reply

“Combat six-three, one-zero thousand.” Pulling his foot off the comm pedal, he glanced at the ground passing swiftly beneath him. In the sunlight he saw farms spreading out below him, fallow after the winter. It was a pretty and organized country, with industry and commerce centered on the obvious roads running through the valleys while the many steep hills remained undeveloped and beautifully stark.

Turning his attention inside the cockpit, he adjusted the navigation toward the anticipated point on their route. Bringing up the fuel management page, he saw the external tanks emptying back into the integral fuel tanks. A quick check on his wingman before he bought up the air-to-air radar and began seeking aircraft that might conflict with his flight path. He quickly noted the sun angle and elevation for later. Then he looked outside again.

Climbing quickly, the aircraft now offered a much wider view of the countryside. A scattered layer of clouds at eight thousand feet looked flat and solid from just above, and the valleys below were disappearing in the characteristic haze of the region. All around him he could see ridges marching in serrated lines away to the horizon.

Noting that they were still flying the runway heading, he keyed the radio again. “Departure, Combat six-three like to turn left to TAMBO and switch Cobra.”

“Combat six-three, roger. Cancel IFR. Switch Cobra.” He swore under his breath. He didn’t want to lose Air Traffic Control flight following just yet. But that’s how they do things out here. Sighing inaudibly, he replied, “Combat six-three, switching.” He keyed the other radio to talk to his wingman. “Button 16 prime.” He rolled the radio to button 16 and checked the frequency, then transmitted “Cobra, Combat six-three, VFR one-zero thousand feet, direct TAMBO for the R-110.” The aircraft banked left as he waited for a response, and the flight began the transition to their actual mission for the day.

Epilogue

“Sir, the CO said I was to take you wherever you needed to go.” I looked incredulously at the Lance Corporal. He stood sheepishly beside the passenger-side door, through which I could see all my bags. It was a second before I replied, “That’s awfully nice of the Colonel.”

He smiled at that. “Yes, sir.” I got in the car and gave him instructions to my barracks.

Yechon was over. Finally. The familiar buildings of Iwakuni, drab though they might have been, stood over me. The prospect of a real shower and real fresh food loomed large in my mind. I couldn’t wait to be able to talk to my wife twice a day again…and actually see her face on video chat! It was good to be back.

I got a good deal on the end, you see. That ol’ major was a good guy after all. I was the first aircrew sent into that muddy little hole, so I got to be the first one out, albeit while flying in the Colonel’s back seat. That was my guarantee, actually. If that aircraft broke, well, the Colonel wasn’t staying. He’d just take another jet. Perk of the rank, and all that. I was just happily along for the ride.

It was an interesting and mostly painful experience, Yechon. I got to look over the treeless slopes of North Korea, marching away abruptly at the band of virgin forest that occupies the Demilitarized Zone, and marvel at a hostile nation so poor its denizens must cut down trees for fuel in the winter. I got to laugh with the Koreans while eating Yum Yum Chicken. I got to see my beloved Corps take half a Marine Aircraft Group and deploy it to an “austere environment.” I got to endure two weeks of rain, mud and cold. I think I got to be a little wiser for all that, though my comrades will (in all probability) tell you otherwise.

It was a good experience, I guess. At least after the fact.

The Magic of WestPac

As time grew short in San Diego last summer, and my squadron’s WestPac deployment loomed, it was hard for me to work up much excitement. That I would miss spending the holidays with family and friends, the long list of things to accomplish (related both to my job and my personal life), and the knowledge that I would be leaving my familiar and good life in the states for six months weighed heavily on me. In that frame of mind I couldn’t truly listen to those who had experienced such a deployment before, all of whom spoke of WestPac with an indefinable longing–for some it seemed like the highlight of their career (which, seeing as how most of them had flown fighter aircraft in direct support of troops in conflict, is saying a lot). Yet nearly three months into the trip I am beginning to understand.

Being abroad as a part of a group of young, capable comrades creates a carefree and deliciously arrogant sensation. Though our personal and professional burdens are heavy and the hours we work long, we are conscious of our collective freedom from the social restraints of home and proudly aware that should war erupt in the Western Pacific we will be the first to enter the fray. Robbed of the traditional cues of passing time (such as holidays and seasons) both by the tropical weather of our deployment locations and by our constant movement from one place to another, we happily find ourselves living mostly in the present–and when we do look to the future, we tend to care more about tomorrow or next weekend than next month or next year.

I could truthfully describe the time we spend here as frustrating, boring, hectic, exciting, and fun. There is an increased workload for us all that stems from both the constant packing and unpacking of the squadron itself as we move around and from the extra time spent learning how to fly in new, strange locations. For the young guys like me, many additional hours are spent after the normal working day studying for the Section Lead qualification. This is really the first career step for pilots after they arrive in the fleet, and it means (when they achieve it) that they are capable of leading another aircrew in combat in any air-to-air or air-to-ground missions of which the F/A-18D is capable. It requires both extensive knowledge and a lot of flight preparation to complete the course of 11 “work-up” flights in which we demonstrate to instructors that we are qualified as a Section Lead, and the required techniques for briefing, conducting, and debriefing such flights are specific and often “written in blood,” a half-euphemism we use often to note that such procedures were developed as a result of some forgotten mishap years ago. Moreover, the criticism of our conduct in these “work-up flights” is strict and can last several hours or more while the entirety of our preparation, in-flight decisions, and post-flight debriefing are examined, discussed, and if necessary corrected. It makes for long days, but we are all grateful for it–this winnowing process makes us better aircrew, forces us to develop the necessary habits of safe flying, and trains us to focus our flights on actual combat rather than mere administrative procedures.

Of course, the best part of deployment has more to do with squadron-mates than actual flying. Living together, far from our homes, with no one else to occupy our time, we “relax” by finding things to do together. Often that is having several drinks at any number of O’Clubs and bars in the places we visit. But tourism is also fun, especially when there is the chance of finding something authentically foreign and yet undiscovered (by tourists) in the unfamiliar places we visit. To this end I took a solitary bike tour through the compact and industrial city of Iwakuni to see the medieval Kintai Bridge and Iwakuni castle, stopping along the way back to enjoy being the only American in an (apparently) popular sushi restaurant. One weekend morning on Okinawa some comrades spent the morning driving to the island’s rural and beautiful northern portion to find a beach with adequate surf, and another evening there we headed into the colorful and cheerfully dilapidated city of Naha to enjoy sushi at the touristy and famous Yoshi’s restaurant. More recently I headed into the Outback to climb some waterfalls and dive into fresh-water pools in an Australian national park.

Some places have yielded better times than others, such as the concrete pavilion behind our barracks at Kadena Airbase, Okinawa. The cookouts, the songs sung drunkenly–particularly, nostalgically, “Country Roads” by John Denver–together under the stars in the heavy jungle air, the stumbling trips across the street to pick up more beer all contributed to the most comradely nights of the deployment so far. Likewise the Officer’s mess in Australia, scene of mustache competitions and three-man lifts, of cowboy- and 70s-themed parties (which we attended in the most flamboyant and outrageous costumes we could create), of the creation of drinking songs, and of friendly carousing with RAAF pilots is now also a place of good memories.

There is something about the places themselves that is exhilarating–they are unfamiliar and exotic–but the exhilaration also comes from our collective wonder and excitement at simply being on WestPac. I’ve already written of the indefinable pleasure of being catered to in Osan, Korea, but other places have their own intriguing characteristics. Okinawa is distinguished by the bright, Caribbean, almost third-world appearance of Naha city (with laundry hanging from lines strung between concrete apartments), the pockets of noisy jungle squatting darkly amid the sloppy civilization scattered across the island, and the riotous sunsets spreading each evening over a golden ocean horizon. Australia is a place where only Orion and Scorpio are familiar in the night sky among strange southern stars, where the reddish outback is rendered curiously bright by the slender, undersized trees, where the large bats, alone of their species, sense the world through their vision and darken the evening sky with their great numbers, and where the thunderstorms are huge, swift, and violent. Many flights we have spent circumnavigating the towering and dark cumulus clouds, and I have watched from above the dense rain showers moving across the floor of the Outback and the terrible lightning striking all around my little vessel from cloud to cloud and down to the earth. In the evenings, when storms reach their climax, I have stood in the entrance to the tunnel leading to our bunker with other squadron members watching the lightning flicker brightly, every couple of seconds, in the darkening sky. One night, watching the storm rage, lightning struck the airfield control tower mere hundreds of yards away, causing us all to involuntarily jump back and cry out.

There is more to see over the next months of deployment. There will be more nights of drinking and visits to new places in Okinawa, Japan, and Korea. And after that we will be moving ourselves one last time, from Iwakuni back to San Diego. No doubt when the time comes to go home it will be welcome indeed. But for now I am glad that date remains comfortably in the vague future, because despite the increased stress and strain of deployment, I am enjoying myself much more than I did in San Diego.

This is perhaps the best-kept secret of the naval service–this is WestPac.